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Divided political parties in Tunisia unite to boycott parliamentary elections


Nearly 12 years ago, a wave of revolts started right here in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East and North Africa.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

FADEL: People demanded freedom of speech, opportunity and a say in who governed them. Autocrats toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, then Libya. But Tunisia was the only nation to emerge with a nascent democracy - until now. Rights groups say it appears to be regressing back to autocracy under President Kais Saied in a global trend of populist leaders getting elected. Earlier this week, a protest grew near the clocktower on the main avenue in the center of Tunis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: I'm looking at probably four or 5,000 people waving Tunisian flags, chanting things like, down with the coup, out Kais Saied, days before a parliamentary election that many are saying are part of an undemocratic process.

A group of young men and women stand in a circle and begin to sing. The feeling of freedom has melted our handcuffs.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in non-English language).

(Chanting in non-English language).

FADEL: Among the demonstrators, we find Manal Imbarak, a 38-year-old lawyer.

Are you voting on Dec. 17?

MANAL IMBARAK: (Non-English language spoken). No. No. This year, no.


IMBARAK: (Through interpreter) These elections are coming under a coup. The president made by himself the new constitution. He made by himself the electoral law. So, no, we're not participating in such a comedy.

FADEL: Imbarak actually voted for the president. A lot of people here did. When he was elected, he was pretty popular. That's waned, but it's not gone. Malak Manaree (ph) happened upon the protest.

MALAK MANAREE: (Through interpreter) I don't understand why they're here, why they want to get rid of Kais Saied. He still needs time to go forward.

FADEL: So you like him.

MANAREE: (Through interpreter) He didn't bring the bed situation with him. It's - has always been there.

FADEL: Who brought the bad situation?

MANAREE: Ennahda. (Through interpreter) It's Ennahda who done - who's done most of the wrong things.

FADEL: The Islamist party Ennahda has dominated every parliamentary election since Tunisia's revolution. Nearby, we meet with Selim Kharrat at his office.

SELIM KHARRAT: Hi. I'm Selim. Nice to meet you.

FADEL: Nice to meet you.

He heads Al Bawsala, a Tunisian government watchdog group. I came with my questions, but he had his own.

KHARRAT: Are you able to do your work?

FADEL: I will say...

KHARRAT: We are not supposed to talk to you.

FADEL: You're not?

KHARRAT: No, within the new law. We are not supposed to speak to foreign journalists.

FADEL: Isn't that your entire job, to watchdog and to speak on this issue?

KHARRAT: Yeah, absolutely - because it's a dictatorship.

FADEL: It's one of several decisions by the president aimed at suppressing critics. But that didn't stop Kharrat and others from speaking with us. His was one of the first Tunisian civil society organizations to sound the alarm when Saied sacked the elected Parliament on July 25.

KHARRAT: It was very obvious from the beginning for us that it was not respectful to the constitution, and it was a decision that the president took alone. And the days after this move, we saw that we were right - (laughter) - when we see the events that followed.

FADEL: It was a very popular move when he did it. People were...


FADEL: ...Very angry at the Parliament.

KHARRAT: But you have to understand why it was popular.

FADEL: Since the revolution, Tunisians had seen one political crisis after the next, so much political infighting that nothing was getting done to reform an economic system plagued by corruption and cronyism. To keep the state afloat, the government kept taking on debt.

KHARRAT: Decision makers lacked courage, and the result is that one single person took the liberty to hijack the economic transition. Now it's - I mean, we no longer have margins.

FADEL: The state is on the verge of economic collapse.

KHARRAT: Other partners of Tunisia put a condition in order to help Tunisia. We had no solutions other than to negotiate a new IMF program. And when you have to negotiate such a program, you have to accept very harsh conditions.

FADEL: So since July 25, what has the president done in the days since that day?

KHARRAT: Ignoring all the communications that Al Bawsala and several other actors of the civil society took to say to the president, OK, stop. You have to stop. We saw that a lot of journalists, a lot of civil servant and also lot of politicians were pursued by military courts, which is in terms of international standards - which is unacceptable.

FADEL: Has Tunisia returned to autocracy? Is democracy dead?

KHARRAT: Tunisia in its own - her way - is on the way of autocracy. The legislative elections of this week is one of the last steps of this process that the president implemented by himself.

FADEL: What the government says is, this is the only way to preserve Tunisia's democracy. The Parliament wasn't working. The population was angry. And the new constitution passed with popular support.

KHARRAT: Yeah. The popular support was quite relative because...

FADEL: It was low turnout.

KHARRAT: ...Only 3 out of 10 Tunisian did vote. If I had the president or its prime minister in front of me, I would ask them a very simple question. You had two years without any kind of opposition. You were alone to take any kind of decision you wanted to take. What are the results? I mean, they are governing alone, but what did they do since two years? Nothing.

FADEL: Saied rode to power on a wave of anger among Tunisians against the political establishment, a lot of it aimed at the Islamist party, Ennahda.

KHARRAT: They have been a very dominant party since 10 years, so they are seen by the majority of Tunisian as the main responsible of this situation. Ennahda did not do its mea culpa.

FADEL: What do they need to apologize for?

KHARRAT: To explain why the Parliament was inefficient under their rule, to explain their own responsibility in terms of economic and social crisis and to say sorry to people who are suffering from this.

FADEL: So we head to Ennahda's party headquarters and meet with its longtime leader, Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of the Parliament until last year.

RACHED GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) Yes, we were part of the government, and we have our part of responsibility, but we did not rule the country alone. It is normal that there would be an antirevolution. But at least in 10 years, we succeeded to maintain freedom and liberty.

FADEL: At 81, his hands tremor. He wears a Tunisian flag pin on his lapel. He recounts the day the president dissolved the elected Parliament.

GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) It was one of the darkest days in Tunisia's history. We were at Ennahda's offices, and we had to declare from the beginning, from the first day that this was a coup. After the press conference, we went to the Parliament. We found a tank in front of the main gate. And we told the soldier, why do you prohibit us from entering our house, the house of the people? We entered the Parliament by elections, and you want to get us out of it with a tank.

FADEL: And since that day, you've had to appear in court.

GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) So the coup maker had decided to sue 123 parliamentary members in the martial court.

FADEL: All of the parliamentary members are being taken to military courts?

GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) All of them have been sued under some law article that can lead them even to death sentence.

FADEL: So is there a possibility that you would face the death sentence?

GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) All this is possible, depending on the judge. The president of the republic and the minister of justice are putting a lot of pressure on the judges.

FADEL: The parliamentary elections on Saturday - what do they represent for Tunisia, in your view?

GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) Misleading people - misleading people because he created the game. He decided the rules of the game. So what is left for the others or for people is just playing the game that he decided for them. All the international community and the international organizations should know that they are dealing with an illegitimate regime.

FADEL: There is - or at least for a lot of people, there is a general loss of faith in the political system, that people's lives are not better. They're just tired of political paralysis, political infighting. And there's a lot of anger towards your party. They feel that the party turned a blind eye to extremists in the country. In some cases, members may be inciting violence. When you look back at the last 12 years, are there things you think should have been different or done differently?

GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) This is very understandable. I mean, Ennahda is the oldest party in the country. It's the biggest body in the country. It is the most organized party in the country. They were not able to compete with us in the ballot boxes, so they are trying to compete with us by defamation and by accusing us. I personally have six cases in court. They are all about terrorism. They all can lead to a death sentence. They are not able to prove it on me. And I have never been arrested or taken to jail. I'll just go do the investigations and come back home.

FADEL: I ask him if he thinks his party owes the country an apology for how bad the economy got before the Parliament was disbanded.

GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) The revolution had two main goals. One was democracy, and the other one was development. And in 10 years, we succeeded to fulfill the democracy part. We are not succeeding in fulfilling the development part because it requires a certain stability. We are a new democracy, so we didn't settle everything. But Kais Saied came and brought us back to the - before the democracy.

FADEL: But it also sounds like you acknowledge that some mistakes were made by your party that was dominant in the Parliament.

GHANNOUCHI: (Through interpreter) Of course. We are not prophets. The biggest mistake is that we voted for Kais Saied and that we have been seduced by his vague words. We made mistakes, but we made no crimes against our people. They accuse us of corruption, but no one was able to prove any corrupted member of Ennahda.

FADEL: In a sea of divided political parties, this weekend, they finally unite in their boycott of this election. We requested interviews with Tunisia's president, the prime minister and foreign minister, but so far, none were granted.


Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.